SBJ/Sept. 11-17, 2017/Opinion

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  • A coach’s life: The patient leadership of Marvin Lewis

    Marvin Lewis didn’t know he wanted to be a coach growing up. But he knew he didn’t want to work in the Pennsylvania mills near his home.

    “My dad worked in the mill, and he would work three shifts,” he told me, recalling the summer he worked in the coke mill. “I spent nine weeks in the mill one summer and it was nine weeks of hell.”

    Football was his way out of the grueling job. “When it got closer to football season, the foreman would ask me if I wanted to work more, and I told him, ‘No, I’ve got to work out.’ I begged to get off of work the next summer too. That was hard work.”

    Those nine weeks helped define Lewis, who focused on work ethic and preparation and turned a love of sports into becoming one of the longest-tenured coaches in the NFL. He begins his 15th year leading the Bengals, second only to Bill Belichick’s reign in New England. I’ve followed Lewis’ career since watching him in two installments of HBO’s “Hard Knocks,” where he came across as a smart, serious, yet compassionate coach and leader. I know the knock against him — an 0-7 playoff record who is known to have undisciplined teams. But I appreciate the full body of his work as a lifelong student of the game and a pioneer when it comes to diversity in the NFL. Through my relationship with his agent, Phil de Picciotto of Octagon, I was able to spend 90 minutes with Lewis in Scottsdale, Ariz., and on a cloudy, chilly Friday afternoon, Lewis met me at his front door, accompanied by his Welsh Corgi named Weslee and his Maltese Yorkie blend, Simba.

    He had played golf that morning, (“I played terrible”) and was spending the last days in Scottsdale with his wife, Peggy, before going back to Cincinnati for the NFL draft.

    We sit at a round kitchen table that looks out to his backyard. Wearing a black Nike golf vest over a white golf shirt and shorts, Lewis grabs some bottles of water, and wears an easy, shy smile as we settle in to talk about his life, career in coaching and thoughts on leadership. My impression of Lewis matched the man — quiet, kind, unassuming, and focused on leading by example through hard work and respect.

    First Look podcast, with Marvin Lewis discussion beginning a the 17:20 mark:

    “You’ve got to bring people through those pitfalls, through tough times, even hold their hands sometimes. There are going to be ups and downs along the way, but you’ve got to stay the course and keep people focused on the ultimate goal.”
    Photo by: GETTY IMAGES


    “I wanted to be an engineer,” he said with a slight laugh. “But the more I was in football, the more I wanted to be a coach. In high school, I was doodling football plays all the time.”

    Sports surrounded Lewis’ youth, as he excelled athletically at Ft. Cherry High School in McDonald, Pa., where he wrestled and played football (quarterback and safety) and baseball.

    With his father at the mill and his mother working as a nurse, Lewis grew up with two sisters and learned early the benefits of preparation and hard work.

    “I did OK as a student. I had to make sure that I did the work. It certainly wasn’t easy for me. I would have to study and work at it to get a good grade.”

    Lewis was going to walk on at Purdue University but was concerned about putting more pressure on his overworked parents.

    “I was feeling bad about my parents having to pay for school because I didn’t have a full scholarship. So, when I got the opportunity to be on a full scholarship at Idaho State, that put it over the top and I went there.” He played linebacker and earned All-Big Sky Conference honors for three straight years. He started studying business, but changed majors in his junior year to education when he decided he wanted to be a coach.

    “The more and more that I was around the game and the coaches, the more I really thought I could teach and help players. So as soon as I finished college, I began coaching at Idaho State. I’d teach and run the after-school football program for weight lifting. I was 22. I wasn’t getting paid, but I loved it.”

    He got his master’s degree and began his career on the defensive side of the ball, coaching linebackers, where he was offered a full-time job in 1982, making $10,000, while able to live in the football dorm for free. In 1983, the day before he married Peggy, he received a promotion. “The day of our wedding, my income doubled to $20,000,” he smiled.

    From there, Marvin and Peggy were on the coaching carousel and moved seven times in 22 years, going from Idaho State to Long Beach State to New Mexico to the University of Pittsburgh, all before the NFL. They had two children, daughter Whitney and son Marcus (who now coaches with his dad in the Bengals organization). It was a challenging lifestyle for any family. “When your kids are younger, it’s a lot easier to pick up and move,” he said. “But once they start school and make friends, it’s a lot harder.”

    But while he gained experience and grew as a coach, Lewis wasn’t focused on the NFL. “No, I never thought about going to the NFL,” he said, shaking his head, while telling Simba to get down from jumping on me.

    First-time head coaches Cower and Billick were role models

    Marvin Lewis, on what he learned from working with former coaches Bill Cowher and Brian Billick.

        On Cowher: “Bill has this ability to listen to the player and get them pointed in the right direction. Being a player himself, it was important to him to know what players felt and thought. He would give them a lot of room — they could flourish or they could hang themselves. He would put it out there: ‘If this is what you feel, then get it done.’ He was good that way. Our teams were tough, they were disciplined.”
        On Billick: “I really learned about organization. Brian was ultra-organized and, much like Bill, listened to the players and provided the direction. Brian was good at dealing with the players, treating them like pros, and he let the coaches coach.”
        On both: “They were first-time head coaches. That was a good experience and good for me to observe. Brian came more from the Bill Walsh, West Coast-style of doing things, where Bill was more like Marty Schottenheimer. I couldn’t have had two experiences as good as that.”
    In 1998, Lewis was chosen to participate in Bill Walsh’s NFL Minority Coaching Fellowship program, and that gave him a taste of the NFL. “It was a really good experience,” he said. “Coach Walsh was very personable, and I learned a lot.”

    Then in 1992, while serving as assistant coach at Pitt, he received dual offers to be special teams coach for the 49ers under George Seifert and the Steelers from Bill Cowher. “When Bill heard the 49ers were offering the same position, he changed the offer to linebackers coach and I told him that he had a deal. Going to coach for your hometown team? That was great.”

    But even when coaching for Cowher and later Brian Billick and Marty Schottenheimer, he focused on the job at hand and not his next career move, which he thinks is a problem with too many young coaches today.

    “I was just trying to be the best defensive coordinator that I could be,” he said. “I literally never thought about being a head coach. I tell young coaches all the time to just be the best coach they can be at what they’re doing. People call you because of the job that you do, as opposed to you saying, ‘There’s a job over there, I’m interested in that.’ Too many times, coaches will get caught up in, one, chasing jobs, and, two, worrying about how much they’re going to make.”

    After coaching smothering defenses at both the Ravens (where his defense led to a Super Bowl title in 2001) and the Redskins, he was hired by the Bengals in 2003, replacing Dick LeBeau, who was coming off a 2-14 year, which marked the worst record in the organization’s history. For team President Mike Brown, Lewis instantly brought stability, while reinstating respect to the wobbly team. Over his 14 years, Lewis has gone 118-103-3 and made the playoffs seven times. But he’s entering a pivotal year, as the team is coming off a disappointing 6-9 record and he is going into the final year of his contract. And while on the hot seat, Lewis carries himself with a steady, calm style. During our conversation, he deflects all contract talk and remains focused on work ethic and attitude, much like he did growing up in Pennsylvania.

    “The best players want to be coached. If you aspire to be a great NFL player, you’re going to work to be the smartest and best prepared. Many young kids take that for granted. They think it’s just about being a superior athlete. Yes, they all have good-to-great athletic ability, but the ones that play the longest are also the smartest. It’s so much easier to coach a hard worker.”

    It’s his emphasis on hard work — balanced by patience — that has shaped his coaching style.

    “The talented player may not work very hard. You have to have patience to help him develop and gain the work ethic. You’ve got to take the talented player and get him to understand how his work ethic will help shape his career and make him a better player. Some people are unfortunately naturally lazy and you’ve got to help them see the light. Because in order to be great, you’ve got to work hard. Hard work is essential to being great. The Hall of Fame players that I’ve had the opportunity to coach and be around are extremely hard workers.”

    Lewis believes a common mistake in today’s coaching is a lack of patience. “You don’t give a player enough time. The talented player through high school and college may not meet the work ethic standards of the NFL. That player has never been pushed to those limits. Some don’t give that player the opportunity to grow; you aren’t able to pull that out of him quick enough. Then when the player goes to another team and you see him flourish, you wonder why? Well, it’s because you didn’t give him that opportunity.”

    He admits the pain in coaching in seeing the player who has done everything asked of him, arrive early, stay late, and work extremely hard, just not be able to make it.

    “Sometimes the hardest worker and the guy that is in there first every day, may be the guy that we ask to leave. That’s hard. You want to see that player succeed because of what he’s invested in it. But it doesn’t always happen.”

    Over the years, Lewis has faced critics over his lack of playoff success and the attitudes or backgrounds of some of his players. This year, the Bengals drafted controversial running back Joe Mixon from the University of Oklahoma in the second round. But Lewis dismisses critics who says he takes too many risks on players.

    “There are players that we don’t touch. So, I don’t accept that we take a ‘risk’ on a player. We research players. If we feel a player can overcome challenges, we don’t view it as a risk. If we judge that he can’t overcome a challenge, we see that as risk and we’re not taking it. I’m not rolling any dice.”

    He also pushes back on the criticism of some of his players, including Adam “Pacman” Jones and Vontaze Burfict, for their troubles on and off the field.

    “Too many times, everyone just waits for one negative thing to happen and pile on,” he said, shaking his head. “People truly don’t appreciate all the positive things that these guys do.”

    Lewis offers up a weary tone when I ask him what life is like as an NFL coach today. “It’s challenging, day-to-day. As the leader, you’re the one that’s charged with setting the direction and, as I say all the time, you’re expected to see ‘first,’ ‘most’ and ‘furthest.’ That’s your responsibility. You’ve got to set the plan, then develop the plan and then continually massage the plan all the way through.”

    What’s the most difficult part of that leadership triangle?

    “Seeing ‘most,’ because you have to see the pitfalls along the way, and understand that. You’ve got to bring people through those pitfalls, through tough times, even hold their hands sometimes. There are going to be ups and downs along the way, but you’ve got to stay the course and keep people focused on the ultimate goal. I really believe in staying on track. Sure, you’re allowed to change, but you’ve got to decide and articulate why you’re changing and when. If you lay the proper groundwork, you’ve got to feel comfortable about the course you’re taking.”

    All year, coaches are on a constant, spinning wheel of leadership, preparation and hard work. All magnified during the season over three hours on game day.

    “If you’ve prepared all week and you’re confident in your plan, then the games are all about execution. All your preparation and buildup is for when that game kicks off. So for me, it’s exciting to see how the guys are going to perform and play. The important part is we’ve got to execute and play the play, all the time. So, that’s our challenge as coaches, to get our guys, put them into position to execute and give us an opportunity to win.”

    “Losing is a hard feeling. … it’s my responsibility to get their heads cleared and refocused on the next opponent.”
    Photo by: GETTY IMAGES


    The losses wear on any coach, far more than the joy of the wins. Lewis truly hates the losses. “Losing is a hard feeling,” he said, rubbing his forehead as if to erase a tough loss.

    “With a win, as coaches, we put it behind us very quickly and we move on to the next week. A loss hangs with you longer.”

    But Lewis picks himself up to lead the organization past the loss and on to the next opponent.

    “My job is to get everybody rebounded from the loss by the next day — 24 hours later. When I walk out of the office the next day, I’ve got to have everybody focused and moving forward to the next opponent. I can’t let it linger. We can make corrections, we can learn something from losing, but it’s my responsibility to get their heads cleared and refocused on the next opponent by Monday afternoon.”

    Much of that success in moving on is determined by how Lewis carries himself in front of players, coaches and staff, and how they feed off his body language and attitude.

    “That literally starts in the locker room after the game, which is my first opportunity to put my thoughts in their head. How well I do is reflected in their comments. So when I read their comments after the game, that indicates to me how well I did. Then I get a chance to reevaluate again after my comments to them on Monday, and I can see what they say after that. Those are the indicators where you can tell how effective you are.”

    Lewis has been an effective teacher and leader of men for more than three decades. He’s been a role model to his players, who universally praise the way he treats them, and established a notable coaching tree, with former assistants — Jay Gruden, Mike Zimmer and Hue Jackson — now head coaches. He has done all this while being a pioneer when it comes to diversity on the sidelines. Lewis hasn’t been the perfect coach, or a game-day strategic chess master; he’s experienced plenty of failures and is routinely criticized, including by the local fan base. But over his 36 years coaching young men, Marvin Lewis has done it with dignified respect, pulling greatness out of a player who has never experienced it, continually coaching and teaching a player to reach the pinnacle of his potential.

    “The most satisfying thing for me is when one of your players accomplishes something that many people doubted he could do. You see him bask in the glory of being successful. Ultimately, when every player gets to hoist up and hold that Super Bowl trophy, that’s the ultimate accomplishment. But even week-to-week, day-to-day, seeing the accomplishment of doing things that he doubted and others doubted. Seeing a player ascend, and continue to ascend, as they gain more and more confidence, and that player carves out more opportunity for him to do good things. That’s really satisfying.”

    Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com

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  • More women are changing the game as college conference commissioners

    I regularly write and speak about the need for more women and people of color to get top jobs in college sport. With so much bad news — only 10.5 percent of Division I athletic directors are women and less than 40 percent of all coaches of women’s teams across all three divisions are women, it can be hard to see positive change. However, something extraordinary has been going on: the rise of women who serve as conference commissioners are among the most influential roles in college sport.

    Female representation has at least doubled since 1999 in all three divisions to 26.1 percent. In Division I alone, the percentage of women has gone from 6.5 percent to 22.4 percent.

    One of those women paving the way is the current commissioner of the Big East Conference, Val Ackerman. After a great playing career she became staff attorney for the NBA and later was special assistant to then-commissioner David Stern. Ackerman became the first president of the WNBA when it was founded in 1996.
     
    At the Big East since 2013, she helped rebuild the conference from the ground up.

    Ackerman shared with me that “the importance of mentorship in the leadership development process can’t be overstated. I was very lucky to learn at the elbows of David Stern, Russ Granik and Gary Bettman, who gave me the best imaginable preview of what the life of a commissioner entails. I’m inspired every day by my fellow female commissioners in the NCAA and hope our collective work will help pave the way for the next generation of women leaders in the sports industry.”

    When she was named as the commissioner of the America East Conference, Amy Huchthausen became the first person of color to lead an NCAA Division I conference.

    Now in her sixth year, she helped America East get a partnership with ESPN and launched its first digital network, AmericaEast.TV. America East became the first conference to be included as a member of the LGBT SportSafe Founders Club.

    Andrea Williams became the second woman of color to lead a D-I conference when she became commissioner of the Big Sky in 2016. Whereas women as conference commissioners is a breakthrough area in leadership positions for women, Huchthausen and Williams are the only two people of color as commissioners in D-I, excluding the historically black colleges and universities.

    The Ivy League’s Robin Harris is one of many women leading the way in Division I.
    Photo by: NATIONAL FOOTBALL FOUNDATION / THE IVY LEAGUE
    Another woman making strides in the male-dominated world of sport is Robin Harris, who took the helm of the Ivy League in 2009. Since then, she has led the charge in getting more conference games on television with the creation of the Ivy League Digital Network, through agreements with national networks, and from sponsorship agreements with well-known brands. While maintaining the high level of academic excellence the schools are known for, the league has also improved its athletics success under Harris due to the implementation of new conference championship events for a number of sports.

    Prior to her current position, she had worked her way through the ranks of the NCAA. As the associate chief of staff for Division I, she provided advice and guidance to the NCAA senior leadership on topics such as academic standards, diversity, gender equality and student-athlete welfare.

    Harris recognizes the impact she and other women within NCAA leadership positions make: “It has been gratifying to witness firsthand during the past 6-8 years the tremendous increase in the number of female commissioners in both football and non-football playing conferences. I hope this progress at the commissioner level — where we are also hired by presidents — extends to the hiring of more and more female athletics directors.”

    Judy MacLeod is certainly inspiring others — and feels the pressure to do just that. When MacLeod was named commissioner of Conference USA two years ago, she became the first woman to lead a Football Bowl Subdivision conference. At first, she did not realize the historical significance until she received a barrage of congratulatory messages.

    “When I got notes from people that I had only met once or had never met at all telling me about the impact my hiring had on them, it makes you take a step back and go, ‘Whoa,’” MacLeod told Champion Magazine. “For me, it is about doing the best job I can for our members.”

    These women holding high-level positions is especially rare because college athletics has had a history of relatively poor gender hiring practices.

    The fact that 60 percent of women’s teams across the three NCAA divisions are currently led by male head coaches still boggles my mind. It is the single most extraordinarily bad statistic in all the racial and gender reports each year. Not far behind is that more than 50 percent of the assistant coaches for women’s teams are men.

    In 1996, 16 percent of athletic directors across all three divisions were women. More than two decades later, the percentage has only increased to 19.6 percent. And it reached that percentage mainly because 29.3 percent of the ADs in Division III are women — nearly double the percentage in D-II and triple that of D-I at 10.5 percent.

    Numbers like these make the progress of women as commissioners all the more noteworthy. Female representation has at least doubled in the past 20 years in all three divisions and now stands at 26.1 percent as of 2015-16. In Division I alone, the percent of women has gone from 6.5 percent to 22.4 percent.

    It has been 45 years since the passage of Title IX and we are nowhere near equity in the hiring process for women in college sport. However, with women such as Ackerman, Huchthausen, Harris, MacLeod and Williams pioneering the way and being role models for the younger generations, there may be more opportunity for women in the future.

    Richard E. Lapchick (rlapchick@ucf.edu) is the chair of the DeVos Sports Business Management Graduate Program and is the director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida, which annually publishes racial and gender report cards on MLB, the NBA and WNBA, NFL, MLS, college sports, and the APSE. Follow him on Twitter @richardlapchick. Chelsea Stewart and Blair Neelands contributed to this column.

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  • Saddle up! We’re horsing around with sales analogies

    This column started out on Twitter. One of my students currently working in sales was frustrated because he had an idea for a sale that fell outside of the structure being employed by his inside sales manager. His manager was encouraging him and his team to make their specified number of calls every day from the leads assigned to them. The manager felt that what the student was attempting to do was not the best use of his time and wasn’t very likely to result in a sale. The young man elected to do both — follow the manager’s instructions during the day and pursue the sale after hours. He persisted and closed the sale he had been working on with the result being a sale in the mid-five-figure range.

    Upon hearing about the sale and having been aware of the situation, I tweeted “One of the most important things a sales manager learns is how to motivate and manage people differently within the same structure.” That tweet led to a number of follow-up tweets that created some dialogue and the concept contained here.

    The analogy I presented is that salespeople are a lot like horses — some prefer to remain in a corral — safe and routine. Some others like to occasionally venture out in the pasture — more open but still contained and structured. Both of these environs provide structure, and the basics of food and shelter (read this as sales leads and coaching). Others are like mustangs, preferring the wild and solving problems on their own with a general disdain for routine, structure and rules. Finally, some are veteran horses, preferring to work at their own pace and own style and because they understand the rules, often giving the appearance of following them but really following their own inclinations. So let’s examine these various “horses” from a “jockey’s” (sales manager’s) perspective.

    Ponies in the corral

    Usually younger, wearing a saddle and bridle for the first time and learning to let someone control the reins. Everything is new and they are often eager for the attention and care from their jockey. They are quick to learn but often make mistakes and need ongoing training and repetition. As they begin to understand what is expected of them and learn that they are rewarded when they perform to the satisfaction of the jockey, they try to outperform each other to earn the special attention and recognition associated with becoming a show horse.

    Maturing colts and fillies

    While still spending a large part of their time in the corral, these maturing horses have earned the trust of the jockeys and trainers and are permitted to leave the safety of the corral and spend time in the pasture (going on face-to-face sales appointments). Positive behavior and performance earn more time in the pasture and away from the corral while poor behavior and performance result in more confinement in the corral accompanied by more training and practice through repetition and more instruction.

    Well-trained and confident players take a variety of risks and venture outside the corral.
    Photo by: GETTY IMAGES


    Mustangs

    Often show they are willing to test the limits and control of the jockey during their early time in the corral. Sometimes they earn the right to be in the pasture but on occasion are permitted into the pasture earlier than usual because of their temperament and sometimes frustration on the part of the jockey who then decides to try something new. The mustangs enjoy the pasture much more than the corral but also leave the pasture at the first opportunity to run free and unfettered on the open range — where they are usually out of the control, influence and sightline of the jockey. Mustangs love the open range as they often make modifications and alterations to what they have learned to make it serve them better. As they are running free they develop speed and agility as they maneuver through the varied terrain on the range. For that reason it is difficult to return the mustang to the corral for additional training or even to restrict them to the pasture. On a sales team, mustangs usually have the highest upside but also are the most difficult to manage.

    Veteran horses

    These horses are tested performers. They were well trained in the corral but distinguished themselves in the pasture. They don’t have the temperament of mustangs and often give the appearance of adhering to the training they received while in the corral, but in reality they have learned to look like they are obeying the jockey. They have learned to know how long the rope is and how tight the rope is in reality (they have learned what they can get away with). Their senses have been finely developed to be able to read the situation and understand what they can do. They are strong finishers and always cross the finish line — often without their jockey.

    Jockeys

    A winning jockey can adapt his or her style to the types of horses on the range, adjusting their training, routine and diet to produce horses capable of winning races. However, some jockeys only have one speed or style, resulting in horses leaving the ranch prematurely, while others exert too much control, breaking the spirit of the horse, and still others are too lax and the horses don’t respond and fail to learn. The jockey needs to understand that a horse adapts to his or her surroundings, so in addition to the jockey and the corral training, the ranch, the other horses and the type of training, and also opportunities like what they might find on the pasture or the range. Motivation varies as well — for some horses it’s carrots, some like apples and others like sugar.

    As the best sales managers, jockeys are “horse whisperers” communicating in a variety of ways to a variety of horses in various stages of development producing many contenders and hopefully champions, capable of competing day in and day out regardless of the course or track.

    Bill Sutton (wsutton1@usf.edu) is the founding director of the sport and entertainment business management MBA at the University of South Florida and principal of Bill Sutton & Associates. Follow him on Twitter @Sutton_ImpactU.

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  • Cartoon: They’re grrrrr ... wait

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